Waterfalls and Sea Changes
The former and current artistic directors of Austin Script Works discuss new plays, local theatre, and the writer's voice
C. Denby Swanson and I first met as grad students studying playwriting at the University of Texas. One day she brought in a play she was working on that included a woman addicted to wheatgrass, a father who communicated to his family via a television set, a helicopter landing onstage, and an alien wedding in a football stadium. My mind was blown, and all I could think was: "I must meet this woman." She and I became fast friends. In December 2002, I became artistic director of Austin Script Works, a playwright services organization made up of experienced writers (Core members) and those earlier on in their careers (Associate members). By the summer of 2004, however, I found I needed to pass the torch of leadership to a new playwright. Swanson was the obvious choice, and lucky for me (and for Austin) she accepted. On a searing afternoon in September, she and I met for coffee to discuss our lives as playwrights and the life of ASW.
Dan Dietz: So have you always wanted to be a playwright?
C. Denby Swanson: No. For a while, I thought I was an actor.
DD: I didn't know you acted!
CDS: Yeah, I was an actor for a long time. But what wound up happening is that I would get typecast and this happened not only in Austin but in other places as either a secretary or an amazon.
CDS: No matter where I went, it would stay in this alternating pattern: secretary, amazon, secretary, amazon. It was fun, but I don't necessarily understand the overlap between those two kinds of characters. Am I an amazonian secretary? Or a secretarial amazon? So anyway, I went to Europe in 1996 and did English-language theatre. ... And while I was over there, I realized that I would rather be writing. Like that seemed to be my voice. I was in a place where I could walk all day long and not hear a word of English, and I think that sort of whittled down what my voice was inside my head. I had to be very certain of my own identity in that kind of place. I wrote my first play looking out at the Prague castle from my window.
DD: I know what you mean as far as typecasting goes, because it seemed like when I started acting in Austin, I was always cast as the weird, crazy interloper.
CDS: And you've come so far! Like in The Death of a Cat [by CDS] you were the weird, crazy interloper!
DD: I'm always the guy who comes in from outside to creep everybody out. Or threaten them in some way.
CDS: That reminds me of a production of Weldon Rising that Frontera did, I think in 1994. I was in awe. The moment that we're taped into the theatre the guy who's the perp in that play put this big sheet of plastic over the entryway to Hyde Park Theatre and duct-taped us all in and then turned around and looked at us.
CDS: And we don't get out until someone cuts that plastic open.
DD: That must have been an amazing theatrical moment.
CDS: It was amazing.
DD: So you left Austin in 2001 to write at the Playwrights' Center in Minneapolis as a Jerome Fellow, and then you returned in 2004 to take on the artistic directorship of ASW. Did you notice any differences in the theatre community specifically in the new play community by the time you came back?
CDS: It had grown, definitely. I feel like the Rude Mechanicals sort of came into their own in those years, and dirigo group came around, and Salvage [Vanguard Theater] came into its own in a really strong and forceful way, and there are all these other smaller groups that keep happening, like the piece that happened in the guy's house, At Home With Dick. That was so great.
DD: Rubber Repertory.
CDS: People like that, they keep challenging our idea of where theatre can happen. And I think that Austin also seems to have some kind of common physical aesthetic. That there's a training that happens here or a transformation that happens here to actors. They just start using their body in a different way. Don't you feel like that?
DD: Yeah. Before I moved to Austin, I lived in Atlanta. And I saw lots of really good theatre there, but I didn't really see anything that I felt was necessarily pushing the boundaries of theatrical convention. Then I came here and suddenly found companies like Salvage Vanguard and the Rude Mechanicals and Physical Plant who were constantly redefining what theatre could do. It seems like Austin isn't just interested in new work, it's interested in new theatre. I think that's part of what makes this such a good playwright town. And this town is so full of playwrights. I don't think I really knew how full it was until I took over ASW in December 2002 and saw the membership roster, which at the time was at 148 playwrights. I was absolutely stunned. I mean, I knew there was a lot of new work in Austin, but part of me suspected it was all by the same 30 people, if that many. I didn't realize what a big community the playwriting community is here.
CDS: It's huge.
DD: So I'd be interested to know what you think ASW offers that other companies don't, or can't, or are less good at offering. What keeps writers interested and keeps writers connecting with the organization?
CDS: That's a good question, and it's been one of our primary questions this year, actually. Because we have all these tremendous writers in our core membership who already have associations with theatre companies, but then there are a bunch of writers who are struggling to find their place in Austin. How does ASW serve those folks? One of the ideas we're looking at is encouraging people to self-produce and not wait for something to happen. People love writing, and they have all this text they've created, but they don't know what to do with it next. So we're trying to build bridges between writers and their next step as Creators of Art. It doesn't just stop at the page, it goes past that.
DD: That's great. I know I always felt really lucky that I hooked up with Salvage Vanguard, and that [SVT artistic director] Jason Neulander trusted me enough that when I handed him this really really bad first draft of one of my first plays, this really raw, raw, ugly draft ...
CDS: Which play was it?
DD: At the time it was called The Park You Said, but it eventually became Dirigible. And Salvage Vanguard was in a place at the time where they could take a first draft from a writer who had never been produced before and guarantee him a full production. It was an incredible gift. And it really forced me to finish the play in a way that I don't think I otherwise would have. Because I was really having a hard time finding my central, grounding idea for that play. I knew the emotional territory I wanted to explore, but I kept spinning around, trying completely different ways of exploring that material. And three weeks before we were supposed to have auditions, I still didn't have a script.
CDS: [Gasp, laughter]
DD: And I actually lied down on my bed, and I cried. And then I fell asleep. And while I was asleep, I suddenly started hearing this voice. And this title came to me. And it was, Dirigible: A Lecture by Dr. Aaron P. Treadwell on the Final Voyage of the Hindenburg With Special Reference to Possible Reasons Behind Its Explosion on May 6, 1937, Placing Particular Emphasis on the Theory of Sabotage New Evidence Will Be Revealed! A big long title. And I suddenly had this title, and I had this voice that was saying it. And I got up and walked over to the computer and started writing. And three weeks later I had a play.
DD: It was unbelievable. But it's the kind of moment that can't happen unless you've got a theatre company depending on you.
DD: But not everybody has that. And especially as I think some of these companies grow and become more established, the ways in which they're willing to take those risks change. They're not as willing to take a risk on a completely unknown writer with nothing but a messy first draft in his hands.
CDS: Also, I think writers in town start thinking of these groups with established identities as these places to aim for as individual artists. [They say,] "Oh, I wanna be a part of Salvage Vanguard." But they don't use that time to find their own vision. And I think that's what I'm hoping we can do with ASW members. You know, "What is your vision? What is your individual vision?" You can't just say, "I want to get produced by the Rude Mechanicals." You have to know your voice. You have to live in your own voice. You've got to see it on stage. You don't know who you are until you see it.
DD: What was the first time you saw your voice fully produced on stage? Was it Waterless Places, the one you self-produced in 2000?
DD: What was that like? I mean, you did exactly what you're trying to help other writers do. What did you learn from that experience?
CDS: I felt like it was the culmination of the eight years I'd been in the community. I got curtains from Frontera, I got something from Public Domain, I got ...
DD: You pulled in all your favors.
CDS: Oh, man! I pulled in every favor. And I raised money. My hairstylist gave me an ad, my chiropractor, my massage therapist. This is the best community to do that in, because they want good work to happen, so they want to do what they can. But also, it was exhausting. I felt like a little shriveled raisin at the end of that. Opening night, the lights went down, [the play] started, and I just fell over on the floor in the lobby. I just lay there for an hour until intermission. Actors had to cross over me.
DD: Oh my gosh! So in what ways is ASW hoping to encourage people to self-produce or give people the skills they need to self-produce?
CDS: As part of our Dramatis Personae series workshops with people in the field at least one if not more than one workshop will be with Christi Moore [producing director of ASW] or another producer who can help people figure out how to self-produce for FronteraFest. Christi's doing a class on How to Produce for the Short Fringe. Then we'll have one later in the fall, How to Produce for the Long Fringe. It doesn't need to be intimidating, especially with FronteraFest, because so many things are taken care of for you. You have space, you have tech, you have a schedule. You just put yourself into these places and then do your stuff.
DD: FronteraFest is such a great environment to cut your teeth as a playwright. But what about more seasoned writers? Have you experienced difficulties in balancing the needs of more experienced core members with the needs of associate members? I know I did.
CDS: Yeah. We've had the same questions. And what we're doing this year is actually flattening out our membership structure, so there won't be those two different layers of members. The Core is being reintegrated back into the general membership. And everybody has access to apply for everything. We opened up our Short Fringe FronteraFest commissions to general members as well, and I think it was actually energizing for people to feel that they could get something done like that. I still have questions about how to address the needs of people who are in a more advanced place, who are actually heading toward writing careers. And I haven't figured that out yet. But the feedback has been positive so far about flattening out membership structure, from Core as well as the general membership structure.
DD: What do you see as the future of ASW?
CDS: I feel like a couple things are ahead of us. One idea is that ASW needs to not stay a local organization. We need to build on our regional strength, and actually become a Central Texas playwright organization. We need to be in constant conversation with artists and theatre companies regionally, and say, "What do you guys need?" One of the things we're doing is working with Teatro Vivo on a Latino Playwrights Initiative. I got really angry when the Mark Taper Forum [in Los Angeles, Calif.] disbanded its play development workshops.
DD: That was a highly controversial move.
CDS: It made me so angry. New play development workshops aren't just for the host theatre company. It's a way for playwrights to hear their voice. They can't hear it unless they see it up on the stage. A new voice sounds completely different on the page than it does live. It's a sea change from what you read when you see it. And you can't get that information unless you have the workshop. Especially people of color and marginalized writers whose voices are gonna get lost. They're just gonna get lost. Sorry, I got mad there ...
DD: No, it's true. And clearly something you feel passionately about. Do you think ASW has an opportunity to serve those writers?
CDS: [Smacking the table] Totally. Totally! We can totally step in and serve those writers. One of the greatest strengths of our region is the Latino/Latina community. And why shouldn't ASW say, "We are a place where you can find a creative home. And not only that, but then find connections for you in these other producers or collaborators or directors or students." So that's one of our goals. You know, for communities to find voices as well as individual artists.
DD: It brings back this idea that you had earlier, when we were talking about focusing on your own individual voice instead of writing for a particular theatre company. It's so important to develop your own voice and ask, "What do I have to say, and how can I get that voice out?"
CDS: And believe in it. [Because] people are gonna question you, and they're gonna say, "I don't get it," or "How do you think this is possible," or "You have a waterfall in your play? How can you have a waterfall in a play? You can't do that." And [you have to] just say, "You can. I know you can. I believe in this image. Somehow I'm sure it's right."
DD: It seems like ASW is perhaps the one organization you can go to with that image, with that part of your play that producers are gonna look at and go, "No. Not from you. Not from a beginning playwright. There's no way we can do that. You need to change this." ASW is the one place you can go where they'll say, "Yes. Yes, you can do that. If that feels right, let's explore why it feels right and let's make it the best use of a waterfall there's ever been on stage."
CDS: Absolutely. The Latino Playwrights Initiative is one way to do that. Because so many different communities have so many different voices inside them. It's not just like the One Voice of the Community. So we'll have an opportunity for lots of different writers locally and maybe regionally and nationally to come in and have a conversation about what each of them does.
DD: It's funny. When I was running ASW, I found that a lot of my job was simply going out to lunch with a writer and saying, "Don't lose hope. Your play is really good, and I'd be happy to help you find ways to make it better," or "Here's what you can do to take your career to the next level." To offer that kind of support to other writers. I found it very fulfilling on a personal level.
CDS: Exactly. You're a resource. Which is great, and it feels good.
Dan Dietz's play Americamisfit runs through Nov. 19 at the Off Center, 2211-A Hidalgo. For more information, visit www.salvagevanguard.org.
C. Denby Swanson's play Honour will receive a staged reading Dec. 10, noon, at the Zachary Scott Theatre Center, 1510 Toomey. Her play Atomic Farmgirl will receive a reading in January at the Drilling Company in New York City.